BOOTLEG FILES 757: “Caesars Guide to Gaming with Orson Welles” (1978 video starring the one-time Mr. Kane).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Never intended for home entertainment release.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
Orson Welles is the cinematic gift that never stops giving. Just when you think you’ve seen every film and television appearance credited to him, another long-lost piece of ephemera manages to emerge and fill out his already considerable canon. This past week, a pair of Facebook friends shared a half-hour video that Welles did on behalf of the Caesars Palace resort in Las Vegas in 1978 – I never knew this existed and was excited to check it out.
“Caesars Guide to Gaming with Orson Welles” was never intended for a wide release, but was broadcast on the closed-circuit television network within the vacation destination. How it slipped out of the hotel and into unauthorized YouTube postings is unclear, but its emergence offers an interesting glimpse of Welles during a rough patch in his life.
The 1970s seemed to begin on an optimistic note for Welles – he received an honorary Academy Award and the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and he was featured in popular films including John Huston’s “The Kremlin Letter,” Mike Nichols’ “Catch-22” and Claude Chabrol’s “Ten Days Wonder.” By the end of the decade, however, things were somewhat less hopeful: his feature film “The Other Side of the Wind” was permanently stalled due to legal issues beyond his control while his completed production “F for Fake” was blasted by critics and ignored by audiences. Long-percolating problems with the Internal Revenue Service required that he take almost any job offered to him, no matter how demeaning to an artist of his talent. Thus, Welles was a ubiquitous presence during this time as a variety show guest, the narrator of hokey documentaries and television commercials, and the loquacious fixture on television talk shows while he vainly attempted to jumpstart dozens of film projects.
In 1978, the management of Caesars in Las Vegas reached out to Welles to host a video designed to guide their neophyte gambler guests through the rules of the popular casino games. Welles reportedly agreed to the job on the provision that he would be paid in cash – he needed money to cover his expenses and was not eager for the IRS to garnish his earnings. The casino had no problems with this request and Welles completed his work in a day’s presence on-camera and extra narration recorded later.
“Caesars Guide to Gaming with Orson Welles” opens with a montage sequence regarding the highlights of a Caesars vacation, including glimpses of the gaming rooms, the hotel’s amenities and blink-and-you-miss views of entertainers including Andy Williams, Tom Jones and Sammy Davis Jr. (The Davis moment is edited in a way that gives the impression the star is gleefully admiring two white women in a hot tub.) Frank Sinatra’s ring-a-ding-ding version of “Luck Be a Lady” is heard on the soundtrack during this montage.
The viewer finds Welles puffing on a cigar while dressed in the trademark black clothing he favored during this time. He speculates his hosting duties came about because “I know a little about cards, a little about gaming and because, well, I’ve been known to take a long shot or two.” Welles imagined prehistoric men throwing animal bones as the forerunner of dice games and observed that every known culture has included its own games of chance. But he also assured the viewer the games at Caesars are “remarkably simple to play.”
For the next half hour, Welles offered a running narration the fundamentals of such casino games as baccarat, dice (also known as craps), blackjack, roulette and keno. For the most part, Welles is off-camera with his narration while the viewer watches simulations of the casino games. When he is on camera, Welles is usually standing between a pair of seated young ladies wearing rather low-cut dresses, his cigar burning slowly in his right hand while his eyes occasionally glimpse at the cue cards from which he is reading his lines. The woman rarely acknowledge his presence and never speak to him.
In between these sections, the viewer gets brief glimpses of the multiple dining options located within Caesar. For guests who prefer Japanese, Greek, Spanish or old-fashion American glutton-inspired dishes, there is something to satisfy everyone’s taste.
Welles’ fans will find this video interesting because he is mostly standing and is seen in a very full figure – during this period of his life, Welles was usually filmed seated and from the chest up. Here, however, his girth is not obscured and his obesity was never more obvious. Even worse, Welles appears to grow more visibly tired as the video progresses – one can assume this was shot in sequence, with the star’s energy waning as the production day dragged on. (Some unkind online voices speculated Welles was drunk during the latter part of the video, perhaps recalling the notorious outtakes from a Paul Masson commercial where he obviously enjoyed the wine before his time on-camera.)
Robin Greenspun, filmmaker and founder of Cinevegas, told the Hollywood Reporter that this video was shot in the resort’s private casino, which was near the Palace Court restaurant at the time. Welles enjoyed the warm Las Vegas weather’s benefits on his health and the city’s lower cost of living, and moved with his wife Paola and daughter Beatrice to the gaming capital later in that year. (He also kept a home in Los Angeles with his mistress Oja Kodar, but that’s another story.)
I am not certain how long Caesars kept this video on its closed-circuit television network. Mercifully, the video was preserved and can be easily seen online – Caesars has made no attempt to have it removed from YouTube. And while it ain’t “Chimes at Midnight,” at it least it offers a peek at what Welles was up to between stillborn film projects and Merv Griffin guest shots.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
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